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Peer harm reduction workers move to unionize in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

VANCOUVER — When the overdose crisis struck British Columbia four years ago, Dave Apsey was among a small group of people in a unique position to respond.

VANCOUVER — When the overdose crisis struck British Columbia four years ago, Dave Apsey was among a small group of people in a unique position to respond.

As a drug user who helped open a needle exchange in 2003, Apsey said he knows first-hand about addiction and is trusted in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside as a member of the community. His position as a peer enabled him to respond to more than 2,000 overdoses.

Until last April, wages at the needle exchange had only increased by $1 an hour over a 16-year period above the $13.50 that Apsey was originally paid, even as the cost of living in Vancouver skyrocketed, he said.  

He is among a group of peer harm reduction workers who are pushing to join a union.

"This has been a long time coming. We pay our own medical, buy our own prescriptions, things aren't cheap," Apsey said, adding that many of the workers live in the city's lowest income housing units, known as single-room occupancy buildings.

"After 20 years of work I should have something, and I don't even have a retirement plan."

The union drive has run into an obstacle, however. After dozens of the 50 to 70 peer workers at PHS Community Services Society cast ballots on whether to unionize, the ballot boxes were sealed without being counted.

Andrew Ledger, president of CUPE Local 1004, said PHS is disputing the definition of peer workers as employees.

"We would have loved to have been able to open up the ballot box and get that counted but, unfortunately, the PHS Community Services Society is taking the position at the labour board that these peer workers are not, indeed, employees," Ledger said in an interview.

"We are taking the position that they are."

PHS spokeswoman Micheal Vonn declined an interview while the matter is being considered by the Labour Relations Board of British Columbia. The society is a charitable non-profit organization that provides supportive housing, harm reduction, and overdose prevention in the Downtown Eastside.

Julie Griffith, the labour board's information officer, said the ballot box will remain sealed until the matter is adjudicated. A hearing is scheduled for March 31.

Some say if the union drive is successful, they hope it wouldn't threaten casual work opportunities.

Sarah Blyth of the Overdose Prevention Society said peer workers range from volunteers to full-time employees at various organizations in the Downtown Eastside.

"I'm just supportive of being able to hire a person who's in the alley to do the work immediately. It's really important to have really low-barrier frontline work and there's also an importance that people can move up and on in positions where they have some security," she said.

Dean Wilson started volunteering before working a few hours per week for a stipend. He reached full employment with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use and has a small contract with PHS.

People who are able to achieve stable employment are "perfect" for a union, he said, but he wants to ensure that those who aren't still have a chance to get their foot in the door.

There will always be some people who aren't capable of holding down a regular job from the outset, and others who never will be, he said.

"Without those original opportunities I wouldn't be around," Wilson said, adding that he is neither for nor against unionization.

Wilson also expressed concern that the realities of life in the Downtown Eastside could conflict with typical union structures, which he said needs to be taken into consideration.

Casual workers are paid immediately and people living at the poverty line can't always wait the typical two-week period for a $40 paycheque, he said. Those who depend on welfare benefits also shouldn't risk losing them, he added.

"Is the union going to give them the same medical they're getting through welfare if they're only working four hours (a week)?" he asked.

But Wilson said he also hopes unionization would mean greater mental health support for peer workers, some of whom respond to between six and 10 overdoses in a day.

"You see the police talking and the fire department about their guys needing to take stress leave," he said. "We're the real first responders a lot of the time and handle way more overdoses than they do."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2020.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

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